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Faculty Interview with Dr. Mary Ellen Lewis: Reading and the Brain

Faculty Questions and Answers with Dr. Mary Ellen Lewis

November 11, 2015

Center For Innovation and Leadership In Special Education (CILSE) current fellows, Jessica Grow, Rachel Eversole, Martine Philppe-Auguste, and Anne Marie Tagliaferri, interviewed Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Dr. Mary Ellen Lewis to find out more about the link between reading and the brain. Want to follow along with the neuroanatomy mentioned in this interview? Check out Coldspring Harbor Laboratory’s 3D Brain or download their free app!

LewisDr. Mary Ellen Lewis is the Director of Special education Projects at Kennedy Krieger Institute and consults with schools and school districts throughout the region, providing training to teachers, support staff, administrators, and district leadership teams. Dr. Lewis taught English and was a reading specialist in Baltimore City public schools for nine years before coming to Kennedy Krieger as principal of its school in 1980. She has also worked at the Maryland State Department of Education as a specialist in non-public schools. For five years, she was the Director of the Center for Reading Excellence at Johns Hopkins University before returning to Kennedy Krieger in 2005. Dr. Lewis remains connected to the Maryland State Department of Education through her appointment on the Professional Standards in Teacher Education Board and her continuing participation on the Committee for the Redesign of Reading Curriculum. 

CILSE Fellows: Dr. Lewis, can you tell us what parts of the brain are involved in reading and how each part contributes to the process?

The visual, auditory, and vestibular systems are essential in getting the process started. The orthographic process of extracting visual features of words centers in the occipital-temporal cortex which connects the visual symbol to its partnership with language. The left fusiform gyrus promotes verbal and semantic connection, which makes the forms become pronounceable words. 

The auditory processing system is centered in the superior temporal gyrus and is the first area of processing sound. The fronto-temporal region allows the individual to distinguish sounds as noise, speech, or music. Cranial nerves then control eye movements, which allow the eyes to move systematically to process words on a page with left/right congruence and the ability to remain on a line of a text.

Once the printed symbol is recognized as part of a linguistic system, further recognition of the symbols as sub-words, words, or text emerges to allow for usage of the symbols for further understanding.

Short term and long term memory also have an important role in developing reading skills, as well as two more processes: attention and executive function. The influence of those around us, competing stimuli, and the perceived benefits of giving attention to something often determine how we attend. By not having sufficient ability to focus on text, one may not gain needed information for other tasks. Executive functions are primarily the domain of the frontal and prefrontal areas of the brain. Functions that are associated with self-regulation, judgment, supervisory attention, planning and organization, and problem solving are located here. The anterior cingulate cortex of the frontal lobes allows the so-called “cascade” of processes that allow one to see an image, remember the task required related to the image, and performing the task by applying a procedure or rule. As we mature, we exhibit more control over these processes.

CILSE Fellows: Are there are any benefits to teaching students phonics as opposed to the whole word approach?

Phonics may assist in giving children confidence in early reading if what they are reading plays by the rules. This is the basis of so-called “synthetic” phonics programs – “The fat cat sat on the mat.” In the process of introducing the correlation of sound to symbol, phonics can be useful in the earliest stages of reading instruction. 

It is not the only way to teach reading and, used alone, will not produce a fluent reader. A lot depends on the language experiences of the students and how good an “ear” they have for the discrete sounds of language; since English does not have a single correlation of sound to symbol (26 graphemes and 44 phonemes), this can be difficult. If phonics instruction is preceded by a thorough introduction to phonemics – the process of introducing phonics can be easier. 

Using phonics as the first intervention, the backup system of analyzing for component parts, like roots and affixes, can help the reader get the meaning from the words they encounter. When neither the sound system nor the analytic system is useful, then learning the word as a unit is very helpful. It requires a pretty good memory, however. 

What has to happen is a quick introduction to the fact that English is an amalgamated language with words such as “spaghetti”, from other languages and that we invent words, like “byte” and “vape”, and we use product names as words like “Kleenex” and “Xerox”. We also complicate the comprehension process by giving words more than one syntactic function, like making a noun like “friend” into a verb, such as “I will friend you on my Facebook page.”

So, as useful as phonics is to learning to read, it has to be part of a larger system and teachers need to know all the parts of the system with appropriate strategies to teach everyone in the classroom.

CILSE Fellows: Dr. Lewis, when providing instruction to emerging readers, how should skills be scaffolded to best teach comprehension?

The scaffold has to have two parts – mastery and complexity. Mastery provides ever increasing levels of difficulty – polysyllabic words, longer and longer passages, more difficult text forms such as poetry, drama, expository, etc. – that challenge the reader to process text and its potential meanings at higher and higher levels of difficulty.

Complexity involves providing multiple ways for the reader to explore their ability to demonstrate their comprehension. This involves connecting reading to other language skills such as speaking and writing, the only ways to demonstrate comprehension - what some teachers call, “Tell or Spell.” Reading an editorial and commenting on it, writing an editorial and defending one’s position, role playing and writing something in character, word games, and puzzles are all examples of ways to demonstrate comprehension. 

Our current instructional context is to aim for minimum competency to meet a standard. We often forget the needs of students who are actually moving ahead of expected levels of performance and need stimulation to keep going to higher levels of language. For students that are moving up the ladder of mastery and complexity, finding out their interests and providing opportunities for reading about those interests is beneficial. Then, asking questions about what the reader thinks of the material and what opinions they are forming from that reading is essential.

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